During their developing years, your children move from a world with no rules or boundaries set by you into a world of maximum rules and boundaries. They then gradually move back to a world with no parent rules or boundaries. You, in a parallel way, begin by setting no rules or boundaries for your children. You then move to setting maximum rules and boundaries. Gradually, you then eliminate the rules and boundaries.
Infancy is the time of life most nearly approaching complete freedom for your children. By the age of three or four, your rules and boundaries should be at their maximum. From that point to adulthood, you gradually modify and then drop the rules and boundaries.
Failure to understand and accept this process poses one of the biggest difficulties between parents and teenagers. Typically, teenagers’ major hassle with their parents is over how quickly to discontinue the rules and boundaries. Parents tend to do this gradually and somewhat reluctantly. Teenagers feel the “childish” rules will never be dropped and their parents will always want to run their lives.
Less frequently recognized but just as common are parents who do not recognize the need for maximizing rules and boundaries when their children are about three or four. This is the age when learning to mind is most important and most frequently neglected. Parents say, “They are too young.” In reality, they are just the right age to learn to live successfully in a world of rules and boundaries.
Here is another way to think about this important point. Consider childhood as taking place within an ever-expanding circle. In infancy, the circle within which your child exists is larger than him. About the time he begins to crawl and walk, though, he is fast filling up this circle. Rather suddenly, from your child’s perspective, the circle of his life is filled with do and do not, may and may not, not allowed to and have to. There are rules and boundaries everywhere he turns.
You then let the circle expand gradually. You take into account your child’s increasing skills, developing abilities, expanding interests, and widening horizons. Still, you must not expand the circle too fast. Your children need very clear rules and boundaries. Certainly, they need the freedom to discover and explore their worlds. They also have to be contained to avoid getting hurt or being exposed to unnecessary risks.
Within the circle of your child’s world, he may function with relative freedom and with relative immunity from rules and boundaries. At the limits of the circle, though, your rules and boundaries should be firm.
Your two-year-old may play in the yard but not in the street. At eighteen months, your child may eat food at a high chair but may not throw it across the kitchen. Your children may play with their toys but not with the knobs on the kitchen stove. They are permitted to go some places, play with some things, participate in some activities, but are forbidden other opportunities and experiences. As your children enter school and move on to adolescence, their circles expand to include family, friends, neighbors, school, and community.
Sometimes parents wait until things have gotten out of hand before trying to establish rules and boundaries. Your child does not mind or he refuses to mind. Perhaps he does not even know how to mind. In nine- and ten-year-olds, this is all too frequently seen. The challenge is to establish the rules and boundaries that should have been in-place when your child was three or four. It requires intense effort and sometimes counseling for both children and parents when postponed until your child’s behavior is out of control. Try to achieve this with your adolescent of fifteen or sixteen and you face a potentially insurmountable challenge.